When the Patriots ran:
Cincinnati entered the game with a struggling run defense but you'd never know it after watching the way the bottled up LeGarrette Blount and James White. That pair combined for 20 carries, which is a solid commitment to get the ground game going, but those attempts resulted in just 69 yards. As a team New England managed only 79 yards on 23 carries for a 3.4-yard average. Even Tom Brady was stuffed on a quarterback sneak at the goal line, something that happens less than once a season. Cincy's front was dominant for large stretches of the game, particularly on the inside where guards Joe Thuney and Shaq Mason struggled. Blount accounted for 50 yards on 13 carries and once again failed to average 4 per rush (3.8), and that was despite an early 15-yard run on his first attempt. After showing a burst as a runner in Cleveland, White was completely neutralizing against the Bengals, finishing with 19 yards on seven carries (2.7). Conventional wisdom suggests the commitment to the run has opened up some passing lanes, but even if that's true it won't continue unless the production increases.
When the Patriots passed:
Cincinnati did exactly what it wanted to do for about two and a half quarters. The front four applied heavy pressure on Brady and defensive coordinator called some well-timed A-gap blitzes for linebacker Vontaze Burfict. The result was a frustrated Brady, who heard more than few during a first half that saw the Patriots sitting on three points until a fortuitous illegal contact penalty allowed them to convert a third-and-18 late in the half en route to a touchdown. Things weren't immediately better in the second half either, as New England was forced to punt on its first series. But eventually things settled down and Brady reminded everyone why he's considered the G.O.A.T. He completed 29 of 35 passes for 376 yards and three touchdowns – two going to White and the other to Rob Gronkowski. It was Gronkowski who stepped up his game after the break, finishing with seven catches for a career high 162 yards. He consistently got free in the seams and Brady bought enough time to find him often. After being sacked three times and pressured on many others, Brady settled down and worked his magic, finding White (eight catches, 47 yards) and Martellus Bennett (five catches, 48 yards) underneath. It was another clinic by Brady.
When the Bengals ran:
Cincinnati had more success running the ball than the Patriots, finishing with 120 yards on 32 carries for a 3.8-yard average. But that was still not great, and looks even worse when considering the tremendous goal line stand the Patriots fashioned early in the second quarter. After Gio Bernard picked up 5 yards to get to the 1, he was stuffed for no gain on second down and again on fourth after an incomplete pass in between. Dont'a Hightower was the catalyst, bursting through a gap off the right side to stone Bernard in the backfield. Bernard had just 49 yards on 15 carries (3.3) while his partner Jeremy Hill was limited to 38 yards on 13 attempts (2.9). Neither was able to consistently generate enough yards to alter the game and the Patriots once again featured their "Heavy D" front of Malcom Brown, Alan Branch and rookie Woodrow Hamilton. That group, along with Hightower, held Cincinnati's ground game in check and never allowed the slippery Bernard to break into the clear for a big play.
When the Bengals passed:
Sometimes one play can alter the course of a game and when that happens it's enough to sway the vote in an otherwise lackluster performance. Andy Dalton was quite comfortable picking apart the Patriots zone defense virtually throughout the afternoon. He completed 21 of 31 passes for 254 yards and a touchdown. Aside from one late throw down the middle that was nearly intercepted by Malcolm Butler, Dalton never had trouble finding open targets and getting them the ball. However, it was a play made by the Patriots defense that ultimately turned the game around. Leading 14-10 midway through the third quarter, the Bengals were pushed back to their 8 after a holding call negated a 15-yard completion to A.J. Green. On the next snap, Hightower's delayed blitz caught Dalton in the end zone for a safety and the Patriots took control from there. It may have been just one play but that more than made up for the trouble that Green (six catches, 88 yards) and rookie Tyler Boyd (four catches, 79 yards) caused. The Bengals threw it well but the game changed when the pass defense made a play.
For the second straight week there weren't many impact plays on special teams and Stephen Gostkowski missed another kick, this one a PAT to snap his regular-season streak at 478. But New England earned a slight edge thanks to the punting of Ryan Allen, who got the better of his counterpart, Kevin Huber. Neither got much work but Allen averaged 44.3 yards and dropped two of his three kicks inside the 20 while Huber averaged 41 yards and allowed Julian Edelman to average 16.3 yards on three returns. Alex Erickson had an 11-yard return as well but it was the Patriots that won the slight field position game, and one of those Allen punts inside the 20 ultimately led to Hightower's sack for safety. Gostkowski's struggled may have officially reached the point of concern, however.